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Good & Plenty

February 15, 2010

Several of my previous posts have dealt with our personal pantry and food stores. But February is a hard month for the livestock pantry too.  It’s been a long time since the pastures were green, so it isn’t surprising winter is the common time to see livestock going downhill or down, period.  The problem lies in the quality, quantity and correctness of the food for the animal.  It’s funny even people who take great pains to buy the very best for their family may fudge on livestock feed.  And actually, I think it is harder to find good quality livestock feed.  Whether it’s hay or grain.  Livestock feed quality takes a backseat.  Organic isn’t necessarily the answer either, most farms these days practicing organics are just conventional farms with an “allowed” set of amendments.  Same mindset, different stuff.

We have been taught to rely on math and science to help us and fix our problems.  Forage analysis will tell us what our pasture is doing, so we can make decisions about minerals and other feedstuffs.  That is a good thing, I like numbers, but they can let you down too, if you rely on them too much without doing a visual analysis of your stock every single day, and re-calculating in your mind what you actually see.  A forage analysis on your pasture during the growing season won’t tell you much in the winter, if you are buying your hay from some land somewhere else that is farmed differently than yours.  On the subject of feeds too, not all grains test the same, yet a feed recipe will tell you that if you add so much of this, and so much of that, you will be guaranteed a certain protein level.  Ain’t so folks.

We humans are so good at looking what is right in front of our faces.  We simplify what we see to a fault.  COW DOWN – GET COW UP!  Of course, we have to get the cow up, but it is modern feeding practices that have caused many of those cows (and it isn’t just cows) to go down in the first place.  Along with other modern conveniences and our affluent lifestyles.  We have turned over our own food supply to someone else and we have done the same with our livestock.

Mama feeds the new little dairy heifer with milk replacer because mama wants all that milk for the family or to sell.  Meanwhile Daddy is out fertilizing the hay field with store bought fertilizer, because cleaning the manure out of the barn is a chore, and the NPK from the farm supply store is neat and tidy and really makes that hay tall.   As the calf grows, Mama laments just how expensive the milk replacer is, and after a bag or two, quits buying it and gets that calf on more calf starter and hay.  Daddy is walking his fields and counting on a high tonnage yield.  Always looking forward, counting and adding in the positive column, but never seeing that while the little dairy heifer is growing,  her rumen is compromised from bad fat in the milk replacer and too much grain and not enough forage.  Those observations don’t get made and don’t get put down in the negative column. The tall growing grass gets made into hay and gets fed, the hay is most likely minerally imbalanced because there really isn’t too much focus on true soil health, just rapid growth.  And so the story goes, the calf grows, the hay grows but no one really thrives.  The calf gets sold, and moves to another farm, she may be a family milk cow, and when she goes down it will be devastating.  But where to point the finger?  At the unnatural rearing which may have included a poorly timed breeding resulting in a winter calf, or the modern, convenient feeding methods and feedstuffs?  When you buy a cow, how do you know if her calfhood started out being born in a mud hole?  A calf’s tender hooves, umbilical cord, nose and mouth are all entry points for bacteria.  It should be good bacteria, not swill.  Dirty conditions aren’t the same as dirt.  And this isn’t just the big, dirty dairies on the news, it may be the guy next door with a couple of cows.  Maybe he doesn’t know any better, or maybe he doesn’t care.  The outcome for the calf is always the same. It’s a testimony to a how tough cattle are – they survive despite our interventions.

How do we make changes?  Most people who set out to procure livestock for meat and milk, usually have some land.  You don’t usually see someone boarding livestock as is common with horse ownership.  So the simplest but the hardest to implement is seasonal production.  We are so steeped in the on-demand store mentality, that we demand our own personal store at home on the farm too.  We want milk year-round, and thus breed our animals for fall and winter babies.  Some of this is a hold-over from showing and the sale barn.  The earlier babies (that survive) will be larger at show or sale time and may command a better ribbon or  bigger check.  Never mind that you are putting that cow or ewe into a negative energy balance with fall, winter or early spring birthing.  All of us do better with a good spring cleansing.  Spring tonic if you will.  A month on good pasture before birthing is a wondrous thing.  The mother’s body can detoxify from all that winter feeding, and gives the baby a better start.  And just in case you think I don’t know what I’m speaking of, well, we used to have some winter calves, I have done my share of being the valiant “hero”, saving the calf from snow, ice and wet conditions.  Trust me, that is not being a hero – if I did a better job, that calf would not need saving.  It’s the same with all farm animals, if your sow is dragging her nipples through the mud continually, when it comes time to farrow, she may have a sub-clinical infection that isn’t readily apparent.  But giving birth is hard work, if you don’t feel good, you don’t do a good job, you may not care if your babies make it or not.  We all need to empathize a little and put ourselves in the position we put our stock in.  Do you want to eat your dinner on a dirty plate or drink out of a dirty glass?  Sleep in the cold mud?  Give birth in the outhouse?  Probably not.  They don’t either, but they don’t always have a choice.

The other thing is try to feed what the animal needs – if you have a cow that was raised with grain or excellent pastures, you will need to supplement if you don’t have good pastures.  Buying minerals is not a bad thing – and they can make up for poor quality forage or feedstuffs until you get your land in good shape.  No matter what it looks like – it is mostly likely the pasture is depleted and any resulting hay from the land will be too.  And that goes for bought in hay too.  Grass hay these days, may be just baled up tall grass, sometimes fertilized, sometimes not.  If the hay is an actual crop, like it is here east of the mountains, it will be irrigated, highly fertilized, and inviting problems for the stock.  A hay buying tip, buy from someone who has  grazing livestock, even if they aren’t spreading their manure, the benefits of animals on the land are apparent in the subsequent crops.  Of course there are many variables to take into account, but that would be a good place to start.

Most vet books deal with the symptoms of the last 40 years of our now common feeding practices.  So it is hard to get an objective opinion these days from a vet or a vet book.  They are treating what they see, and they don’t question the feeding practices that have led up to the diseases.  Ketosis, acidosis, milk fever are all common these days, and all lead back to the manger.  All diseases that weren’t so common even in the 60’s.  I am not anti-medicine, I am just more for prevention.  We so often just look for solutions to the latest pickle we get into – not what the root cause was.  I know I annoy readers with any plugs for unconventional treatments for livestock.  It’s not progressive to want to avoid antibiotics and modern painkillers.  But it’s not  so much the drugs I want to avoid as it is the pain that the livestock needlessly goes through that require those types of treatments.  Imagine having stock that doesn’t need so much intervention and that thrive.  Instead of investing in a calf-puller for pulling too large of a calf, or a hip lifter because the cows are prone to being down – think instead of getting a different bull, or buying that bag of kelp or dry cow minerals that may help alleviate those common maladies.

If you want to build a natural system without buying minerals, you must cull the animals that can’t make it on your land.  That means don’t use calf pulling as a standard, no heroic hip lifting, or cesarean sections on stock that can’t deliver naturally.  If they make it through the birth process, and shun their young, they need to go.  I think culling is the hardest part of farming.  But it is the necessary part if you are to be economically viable.  With farming fast becoming a popular second career for many people, they have deep pockets from former jobs or house sales and no balls.  It is hard to really put the pencil to that prize cow who could potentially make you some money if…if she can walk on her own four feet, and if she has her calf unassisted and it nurses without you “helping.”  Otherwise, she is bound for the sale barn or freezer.  Same with the ewe who births triplets.  It looks good on paper but usually doesn’t pencil out in the long run.  Most new farmers these days set a figure of $20.00 to $25.00 bucks an hour for a wage.  Bottle feeding bummers will cost you, while the ewe that has a single or twin will raise her babies and do a good job.  She will be your money-maker, not the one with three babies, that may have reproductive problems in the future.

Read, and learn as much as you can.  Always be open to the information presented to you.  Just because you’re reading a book about dairy cows, doesn’t mean you can’t apply the logic to beef cattle and sheep too.  Different ruminants are similar – if highly fertilized alfalfa or grass hay can cause mineral imbalances in cattle that leads to downer cows, then the same can happen with sheep or horses.  The same with poor quality feed too.  No book has all the answers.  Each person perceives the their situation is different.  A good read, but not necessarily the bible on ruminant care is Alternative Treatments for Ruminant Animals, by Paul Detloff, DVM.  He is a conventional vet that switched to more natural treatments, good photos of troubled animals and treatments listed for conventional and natural type treatments.  He is able to see both sides and understands the economics of keeping farm animals.    There are many good books, get them all if you can afford it and pick and choose.  The saying that 95% of  dairy cows health problems are diet, and the other 5% unexplained means that we can do a lot with just a little better feeding and observation.  Pat Coleby’s Natural Care Series of books on different species are good too, but a little out there for the western medicine thought process.  Food can be medicine, our healthcare system needs to be in the preventative mode instead of the saving mode. We need to do the same with our farms.

Do I follow my own rules?  No, not always.  I live in the rainy part of the country – my cows have to walk through some mud to get to the barn.  But I time their breeding for late spring calving so they will be on pasture when birth is imminent.   Do I keep a really sharp pencil when it comes to culling time?  Most of the time.

40 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2010 10:22 am

    You are my hero. Seriously. I love your blog posts. They are so well thought out and well written. You give me a ton to think about as we start to build our own farm. I grew up on a ranch in eastern Oregon, but want to do things on a smaller scale and with a somewhat different focus. You always give me lots to mull over and admire. Thank you.

    • February 16, 2010 10:39 am

      Jocele, thank you – eek eastern Oregon! It’s cold there – that would officially put me in the weenie category. Thanks so much!

  2. February 15, 2010 10:40 am

    If you ever write a book, I’d be the first in line to buy it.

  3. Rose permalink
    February 15, 2010 10:55 am

    THANK you! I’ve actually been rather alarmed at all the “leaving the city job to buy some livestock and land and yet I don’t know squat about being a farmer” types I’ve been seeing cropping up, even in England where land prices are so ridiculously high. I get that people want to throw themselves into things and permaculture/farming/eco-living, but it’s not something you can just take a course for and then think you’re prepared. I cringe because I can just see all the “We’ve got nothing to worry about/climate change and oil is a hoax!” types jumping up and down with glee every time a completely unprepared person has to sell their farm when the money runs out, or the intentional community fails, or something else occurs that honestly wouldn’t have done if people did their research and homework FIRST, then bought up afterwards. There’s no such thing as 100% prepared…but there’s no such thing as “I took a three month course and I’m ready for anything.” There’s so much more to this than looking solely at the end result.

    • February 16, 2010 10:43 am

      Rose, I know what you mean – land around here is terribly high priced. I know of one family though, that sold their California house (10 years ago) and bought a couple hundred acres here. It has been a huge adjustment though, and a very steep learning curve.

      I agree you can never be 100% prepared – especially when nature is involved.

  4. February 15, 2010 11:46 am

    Sounds like the same holds true for stock animals as it does for humans: if you eat poorly, you’ll be poorly. Although it also sounds like feeding stock animals is a LOT trickier.

    Another great post; thank you.

    • February 16, 2010 10:47 am

      Paula, it is true – although I would say it is a toss-up on difficulty. Feeding animals what they would naturally eat is a little easier than figuring out what a husband would naturally eat 😉 Although, I get a little tired of everyone looking to me for food. If my hubby starts mooing softly at me I know I fixed the right meal!

  5. February 15, 2010 1:20 pm

    Interesting post. I’m in the process of trying to clarify (in our own minds at least) what we are doing with our 5 acres, as well as why we’re doing it. Part of this includes livestock, in particular the baby chickens we just got and the few that doing poorly. Part of me wants to “help” them, but on another level I have purposed that these are not pets, and I have no intention of making them so. It seems that responsibility for animals is a balance between what’s best for them and what’s best for us.

    • February 16, 2010 11:02 am

      Leigh, thanks, it does take a while to discern if what you are doing could be changed or if you have some weaklings. And then the next thing is to move on from there in the decision making process. It’s easy with groups of animals as opposed to one or two. In a group, if most are doing OK with just a few weak ones, then you probably have some weak ones. If everyone is doing poorly, it is you. But as Rose points out above it takes experience to know. Then you also have to add in factors such as feed, water, temps etc. We always strive for optimums not minimums. Humans like to push the envelope either way – some vegetable seeds may sprout at 35 to 45 degrees but if you are patient and wait for a higher soil temperature you will have better luck.

      I had a hard time wrapping my mind around late spring calving, because I wanted bigger calves too – but so did the cougars, since the deer and elk knew not to have their babies until temperatures were warmer and feed was available. The cougars had to have something to eat – so guess what they ate. So I changed – but what I didn’t realize until I actually saw it was how much better condition the cow was at birthing time. They were grazing, the ground was clean and fresh, and they weren’t as stressed without cougars lurking at the edge of the pastures, the cougars were off eating Bambie!

  6. michelle permalink
    February 15, 2010 4:03 pm

    another great post. i don’t know squat about keeping livestock, but would like to in the future. the info. you give here has taught me that i know even less than i thought i did. i have a lot of research to do!

  7. Linda Zoldoske permalink
    February 15, 2010 4:06 pm

    You have had two marvelous posts lately – this one and the one about plastics! I enjoy all your posts but these two really make one think! You have put in perspective what I have been thinking about livestock (I just didn’t go as far ahead as you have). I have always wondered about the use of milk replacer but hadn’t really considered it’s effect on the animal’s future health. Hay and grain are another two issues I have also given some thought to but hadn’t considered the whole effect. Thanks!

    • February 16, 2010 11:14 am

      Linda, I guess the thing about milk replacer is that it used to be just dried powdered milk, and wasn’t really a bad product. But once they started adding reclaimed restaurant cooking oil and ??? to the product it isn’t such a good thing. Hard to digest, etc. There are some low heat treated milk replacers on the market but the cost is prohibitive to actually feed a calf properly. So it doesn’t happen. A beef calf would nurse naturally about 8 – 10 months. 6 months is probably the minimum if you are weaning and want a good growing calf, unfortunately dairy calves are in direct competition for the milk, so they usually aren’t dam raised or given milk too long either. A cow’s digestive system is complicated but we tend to try to simplify what took nature a long time to perfect. Saliva is a biggie, if a calf drinks from a bucket and doesn’t suck it makes a difference. If a cow is fed a lot of concentrates and not long stemmed forage she doesn’t chew her cud as much and not as much saliva is produced and they have a tummy ache. Not a killer, but they are expected to behave and produce like athletes, but sometimes they just can’t fight the fight without proper nutrition that takes the whole into account. Sadly production is the only thing focused on.

  8. Emily permalink
    February 15, 2010 6:52 pm

    Great post, once again. Lots to think about. I’m in need of some good ruminant books so I’ll be looking those up.

    • February 16, 2010 11:15 am

      Emily, thanks, it never hurts to have a good arsenal to back you up. I don’t think I have ever read a book that didn’t give me some good idea, even if I didn’t agree with all the methods.

  9. February 15, 2010 11:11 pm

    Great post, your blog is a collection of good, common sense and intelligent advices.

  10. peacefulacres permalink
    February 16, 2010 5:11 am

    As usual, well said. I’m in constant learning mode. I observed this winter that even though my girls are on “organic” hay they are scarfing down a dairy mineral mix that they didn’t eat all summer on pasture. Made me think that maybe that “organic” hay that I’m paying premium for isn’t necessarily “better”. It smelled good and it is mostly green (not like yours) but it lacks nutrients?…..maybe I ought to look for another source? Don’t know. My girls have maintained good condition this winter (been a doozy) and I’m grateful, so it must not be too shabby. I don’t know….still learning and from one that I consider the BEST! Great Job! Thanks.

    • February 16, 2010 11:29 am

      Diane, thanks – hay is hard one. If the cows are cleaning up every last bit, it is good, if they pick through it, there is something there that they can detect that isn’t right or nutritious enough to bother with. When I tell people we let the cows decide, they think we are off our rocker. Our friend who is a Fertrell dealer absolutely will not use Thorvin kelp. He is a contrary sort, and gets something in his mind a certain way and that is the end of it. We did a taste test for him, and offered Thorvin, Acadian, and Tidal to the cows and we watched. We could not discern much difference, I tasted them and it all tasted like the ocean to me. But the cows ate the Thorvin first and then half-heartedly ate the others. It all disappeared so none was bad – just they just preferred the Thorvin.

      We also bought some “quality” hay one summer, in a drought. The cows would not touch it, it looked green and was not weedy, but we found out later the ground had been fertilized with bio-solids. So people should give their animals more credit. Their senses are intact unlike ours.

      • peacefulacres permalink
        February 17, 2010 2:05 pm

        I picked up a load of local hay today. The guy also raises livestock! It was a boatload cheaper than the other and I’m hoping the girls like it A LOT! Thanks for so much really good information and for teaching so many.

  11. Renee permalink
    February 16, 2010 7:47 am

    I really like your blog a lot. You are smart and have a truck load of common sense. You make me think. Thank you…don’t stop

  12. February 16, 2010 1:21 pm

    I just posted about calving, but nothing as good as this post. YEAH! FOR YOU!


    • February 16, 2010 3:12 pm

      Linda, thanks – calving is a while off for us yet – jealous of your hot springs. By the time we drive to the springs near us, we get too relaxed and don’t want to drive home!

  13. February 16, 2010 2:03 pm

    Hi- I have a couple of questions that aren’t related to this post but to another (I think) that I’m hoping you’ll answer or maybe address in a different post.

    When is your first frost date and when is the latest that you can plant your winter crops? I know you’re at a higher elevation than I am, but you’re also in the same general direction of Oregon that I am. I can’t find this information anywhere.

    Everything I read deals with the earliest you can plant, but nothing deals with the latest you can plant for your winter stuff like parsnips, carrots, cabbage, celeriac, beets, turnips, etc. I can’t find this information anywhere.

    I’d like to know your first frost date and when you plant what so I can adjust it for my garden.

    • February 16, 2010 3:26 pm

      Paula, our first frost date is usually around October 1, but it can be mid- September too.

      Territorial’s winter catalog has a chart with planting dates that may work for you at a lower elevation. Those dates are too late for me. I am usually direct seeding my winter veggies right alongside my summer ones. And with celeriac I am starting those seeds in March and transplanting outside in June or late May. Fall and winter brassicas are started in June and transplanted in July. Lettuce, greens and quick growing salad turnips can be direct seeded the first week of August, so they will be harvestable size by early September. If I don’t follow these guidelines in my garden I don’t have a fall or winter harvest, period. The plants need light to grow, more than warmth.

      It is confusing to be planting for winter when you’re are planting for summer, but it is a necessary evil 🙂

      Just remember, fall and winter is for harvesting not growing. Some things may grow a little, but not enough to count on.

      • February 16, 2010 8:11 pm

        Thank you VERY much-I’ll take a closer look at my Territorial catalog, and work off what I find there and what you’ve given me here. I’m super-grateful!

  14. February 16, 2010 4:46 pm

    Great blog!

    We have been raising bull calves on the bottle for several years now and I’m about done. Once you have more than a few it is just about impossible to keep them out of the muck. And the worst thing is they are not worth enough to take care of the way they should be unless you has a job in town and no real sense.

    A new baby bull is worth $50-$75 today, a bag of replacer is $50 a couple of bags of sweet feed is $20 vaccines, banding & dehorning supplies another $10-20 plus the cost of some hay and pasture and hutches and repairs and bottles and Muck Boots(!) add up to a couple hundred dollars before you figure in time and of course factor in the ones who die before they get down a dozen bottles.

    And we’ll only get about $300 for anything under 5 or 6 weight.

    So, we are gonna make range houses for the chickens from the hutches and save up to buy some red polls or maybe some milking shorthorns that haven’t had all the life bred out of them and raise some Homestead Cattle!

    • February 22, 2010 10:08 pm

      Mike, yeah it is hard to make any money on dairy calves – there used to be a dairy near here (a long time ago, since they took the first buy-out) that ran a Hereford bull as a clean-up. It was nice to be able to get half beef calves.

      Good luck on your new plans 🙂

  15. February 16, 2010 7:00 pm

    I figure less is more, the less I get involved, the better off my critters are. That can be misconstrued by some people, but for my mind it’s the best way to be. Feed the way that nature intended, grazing, grazing, grazing, no grain unless they need it, plenty of fresh clean water, let them have their babies themselves. I do like to be there, but I stay out of it. God knew what He was doing when He created these animals……..we are pretty conceited as humans to think that we, or science, has a better way. Great post as always! 🙂

    • February 22, 2010 10:09 pm

      Sarah, I know what you mean – sometimes just not looking is the better way. I see some farmers saving all the bummer lambs and piglets in trouble and they never question why they have so many mothers not doing what should come naturally.

  16. February 20, 2010 9:26 pm

    I haven’t had the chance to comment on this post ’till now, but wanted to be sure to, as it is an exceptionally good one. You have expressed a great deal of wise animal and forage husbandry here in a very understandable and thoughtful way… having just attended the Acres USA Farm Conference in December, I must say you would have been a shoe-in as a presenter there, equal to anyone of the “experts” I listened to (at considerable expense!). One of your commenters suggested you write a book and in truth, she is spot-on. Your treatment of this important subject is thorough, substantial, based on extensive experience, and intriguingly presented. Very good stuff. Thank you.

    • February 22, 2010 10:19 pm

      Thistledog, thank you for such a nice comment – farming is a continual learning experience. It’s hard to put all this in words, sort of like when I build a fire, I don’t just stare at the flame, I look at the smoke coming out of the chimney, I feel the heat on the pipe, and I select my wood very carefully to begin with. All makes for a good outcome. Same with stock. What goes in has a huge bearing on the outcome.

      Thanks again!

  17. February 22, 2010 2:56 pm

    This is a wonderful and informative post—I’ve kept it up to reread for the last couple of days. I second whoever said you should write a book—you have so much good information and such a readable writing style!

  18. February 16, 2011 1:41 pm

    what are some other books on husbandry that you would recommend?

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